I am wretched, I am tired
But the preacher is on fire
And I wish I could believe
—Richard Shindell, “The Next Best Western”
I am lying on my back in a graveyard, watching the stars. I’m pressed up gently against someone else’s side — there are maybe six of us here lying on a blanket together. It’s cold tonight, even for November, and whatever warmth can be passed from forearm to forearm would be treasured.
And more than that, nobody likes to feel alone when they look at stars.
All told, there are maybe maybe about 50 of us spread out through the rows of the graveyard that adjoins our college. I saw so many people just like us walking on the way here: Bundled in winter coats, hats, mittens, scarves, blankets. The woolen things our mothers told us would keep us warm. We didn’t stop to talk to each other or ask any questions. We knew what we were doing. Almost no need for words at all tonight.
There’s a meteor shower tonight. Or so I was told. I haven’t seen anything yet — other people have, but I haven’t been looking in the right place at the right time. It always happens to me — I start listening to a fragment of a conversation and my eyes wander as my brain fills up, and then it happens. Whatever it is that I’m waiting for knows to wait til —
Did you see that? someone asks.
Most of us say we did.
I’m patient. I really am. I just have trouble sometimes with persistence. Or maybe the word I’m looking for is faith. It’s sort of strange position to be in tonight. I am almost certainly not lying atop someone’s grave; your feet can feel the earth become rougher in texture. We came here for eminently practical reasons. This is the darkest spot you can find inside the town — the trees that grow around its borders block nearly all of the few remaining lights that are on at 12:30 a.m.
But whenever I come here, I wonder if people can see what transpires at their graves after they’ve died. If somehow a gravestone can give us one last connection to a world full of people who are awake. And I wonder what they would think of us tonight. I take special care not to disturb anything because of it. I hope whoever remains here would not find me a rude guest.
But I can’t decide for sure if I really believe that, whether it’s anything more than a nice thing to believe in, like the idea that everyone has a soul mate or that the good things you do will come back to you threefold. I can’t decide if we are really not alone tonight.
A girl with red-brown hair who’s lying next to me asks, “Do you believe in God?”
I don’t get it. This is maybe my fourth drink at this apartment-warming party three years later and beyond my inner ear closing shop a little bit, I don’t feel the least bit different. It certainly isn’t tolerance — I’ve barely had a drink this month — and it isn’t our esteemed bartender and host’s fault, either. Something just isn’t right.
No, no, the girls sitting on the daybed are saying to each other.
I’ve been hearing that word a lot lately. No. It’s been coming at nearly every turn these days. Not a nasty no. Even that would give me something to talk about tonight besides budget cuts and nice apartments. Just a steady, faint no. No says the cashier before she asks me for here or to go. No says a voice whose owner I can’t see. No comes the air conditioning’s echo down a hallway I walk at 4:23 p.m. on a Tuesday.
No stories is what’s worst of all.
These days, I’ve been asking people anything interesting happen to you? right after how are you? I’ve been starved for stories lately and I don’t know why. I’ve been in a slump, like baseball players get sometime. I haven’t broken any bones, but every time I get up to bat, the best I can hope for is a line drive and getting picked off right before I reach second.
There’s no real advice to be applied here, as far as I know. The only thing to do has been to keep on marching forward. That somehow some planets will realign and things will be right again.
I’m beginning to think it’s me instead. That I’m not really up to the task of making stories for myself, that somehow I’ve been doing things wrong — maybe I haven’t told enough of my secrets to people, maybe I haven’t been brave enough — and that it’s only now, here in a pit of mid-November, that I’m realizing it.
I think I’m losing faith in myself. Not so much me just by myself. Me being able to fit into this world right at all. It’s kind of a problem when you don’t have other kinds of faith.
The only thing I can think of to talk about now is how pretty the sky is, how sharp and precise each cloud appears to me, how they move from horizon to horizon like it’s all a dream. Like none of it is real and I can fly. How the colors burn so brightly, fade so gently, breathe so warmly on my face.
But when I try to explain it to anybody, it only comes out as isn’t the sky pretty? And of course the only reply can be to agree briefly, maybe nod, and fall back into silence.
A girl with red-brown hair who’s standing in front of me asks, “Can you grow a mustache?”
I don’t feel much like an adult. But tonight, that’s because I’m wearing a wizard’s hat. The end of November has turned out colder than I’ve expected, so I didn’t bring much to keep me warm to Joel’s house tonight. I had loaned it to him for Halloween but he hadn’t thought to return it before now, and I’m grateful for at least a little velour and stitched-on stars and moons to keep my head warm out here in his front yard, far from the buzz of light coming from the city.
There is another meteor shower tonight. But more than that, the scientists have promised us, it’s a chance to see something we won’t ever see again. The meteors are fragments from the Tempel-Tuttle comet’s tail, which won’t pass close enough to Earth to leave behind much of anything again until the year 2098 at the earliest.
So tonight is a last chance.
So far, there hasn’t been too much to see. The sky is streaked faintly with clouds, milk lit by a faraway candle, but Joel tells me that it won’t interfere too much with seeing the meteors. What might be a problem is the full moon. It has a halo of clouds lit up by its reflected light, I think, but it’s hard to discern anything beyond a perfectly circular rim that’s about as wide as my arm.
Light is precious that way: Our eyes want to see everything. It’s so hard to see just what we’re looking for.
Do you see anything? a voice says that I swear is coming from inside my ear. But it’s Joel’s father, maybe 20 feet away from us, coming out of the house. The hat must be twisting sound up somehow — even though it was made for kids, I’ve managed to get it over the tips of my ears.
No, Joel says, not so far.
(We haven’t seen anything and we’ve been out for 20 minutes, when the scientists said would be the peak.)
His father corrects us: We should be looking east, not northeast. He watches with us for a few minutes. Even now that we know where to look, we don’t see anything.
These things are never as good as they say they are, his father says, and he returns inside the house.
We still look. Joel and I try to talk to each other — we’re both conscious of the need to fill time in with something, to keep from forgetting where to look and when we are. This isn’t three years ago. Some questions are over and done with even though an answer hasn’t come.
We still don’t see anything. I tell Joel, I think I’m going to call it a night. I have work tomorrow, with budget cuts and pasty green cubicle walls. We turn to walk back to my car, to say the goodbyes and safedrives, and I wonder to myself if I can ever believe. If I can ever grow up.
Then Joel asks, did you see that?
I wish I could tell him I did, that what happened was real and that we cannot fly but I did see something. But I can’t. I just can’t. I just can’t see anything.
We stop and look again, now that we know there’s something to see. We just have to look carefully enough. It’s up to us.
And I think I see something. A slight little streak close to the horizon that’s barely there for half a second. I think. It could have just been my eyes. I’m nearsighted in my left eye and my right eye has developed an astigmatism. I could just be seeing an imperfection in my cornea. An infinitesimally small piece of dirt floating on the surface of my eye. And it could just be me wanting to see something. I am tired and it is terribly cold all this time we’ve been outside.
It happens again a few minutes later and I still don’t know. I still don’t feel sure of it. I won’t ever be sure of it the same I can be sure of the sun rising at dawn, of my stomach growling at noon, of a safe and almost lonely feeling passing through me just before I fall asleep.
But sometimes, wanting is better than having. Sometimes, looking is better than seeing. And sometimes — sometimes — believing is better than knowing.
Yes. I believe in God.